360 video ≠ virtual reality

Men tries virtual reality Samsung Gear VR headset at 2016's VRLA.
Men tries virtual reality Samsung Gear VR headset at 2016's VRLA.

The executive producer of Framestore's VR Studio explains why you shouldn't use 360 video to solve VR's distribution problem

There’s no question, virtual reality (VR) was the tech darling of 2015, a year that also saw Facebook and YouTube launch dedicated 360-degree video players. This simultaneous rise in "VR" and "360" may be causing an unintended consequence: People are lumping the two together.  

As with any new medium, the facts around 360-degree content can be confusing, especially when there’s not yet a wealth of content. I’m no stranger to creating VR and 360 content, and I’m finding many marketers mistakenly think 360-degree content and VR are interchangeable — or that 360 video can be a Band-Aid on the current VR problem of limited distribution.

It’s important to understand the differences between these respective mediums, lest ill-fitting creative ideas be offered up and commissioned, and we miss prized opportunities to use these new channels in the optimal way. The worry here is that VR is a new medium and we don’t want to risk turning people off so early in the game. 

Defining VR content
So, back to basics: VR has the ability to transport users into a truly immersive virtual world by using tools like head-mounted displays (HMDs) to essentially "block out" the world they see around them. VR content can either be real-time rendered in a game engine or it can be a stereoscopic video file (often referred to as "cinematic VR").  In either scenario, there are multiple opportunities for deep engagement and interaction in the content. Though, as you can imagine, content created in a game engine has the potential to be incredibly more responsive and interactive.

On the other hand, a 360-degree video that is not shown in an HMD is essentially one "eye" of that stereoscopic video file: it’s simply a scene that’s been shot (or created in CG) in a way that creates a full 360-degree spherical POV. Users can view any point in the sphere by using a mouse or moving a smartphone or tablet around, and the interaction ends there.

That said, I would not call a 360-degree video virtual reality. Without using a device like an HMD, content seen on a desktop or tablet is not altering what’s perceived as reality because it’s neither augmenting elements into existing environments (AR), nor placing users in a wholly different environment by replacing the content in their field of view (VR).

In short, each platform powers a fundamentally different experience. The interaction in a game engine-powered VR experience, vs. the stereo video VR experience, vs. the "mono" 360 video, creates three vastly different types of experiences and engagement levels. Understanding how to properly use each medium is vital to fulfilling potential and effectively reaching audiences.

The distribution problem
Although the popularity of Google Cardboard and the Samsung Gear VR consumer headset sell-out mean VR is becoming more accessible, mainstream penetration is still low compared to the figures marketers are used to seeing. The biggest "problem" for content creators in VR is that until later this year when the major HMDs see consumer release, there’s no solid business model for content because the distribution channels are currently limited, or non-existent.  

Having worked in VR since the earliest days of Oculus’ DK1 release, I’ve noticed bold brands initially sought value through on-site activations and PR buzz in lieu of reach. Those that couldn’t validate the ROI through PR buzz alone sat on the sidelines, waiting until the results justified the spend.

But now that more VR content is out there, its PR value for just existing is diminishing. Although VR still drives deep consumer engagement on-site, many marketers don’t see this as enough of a counterpoint to the issue of limited reach. 

Marketers hoping to jump on the new tech craze find themselves coming to a screeching halt when someone asks about ROI. So many gravitate towards 360-degree platforms because they have quantifiable reporting and projecting tools. 

It’s important brands looking to delve into VR don’t make the mistake of thinking 360 can be a more affordable and accessible substitute for VR. The truth is 360 and VR are like apples and oranges. If you’re making a 360 video just to get more reach, it often ends up compromising creative that has the potential to be truly remarkable and engaging.

In the end, what’s the value proposition? 
I’m having a hard time understanding the true value of 360, aside from being a "gateway drug" for VR. I haven’t yet seen a 360 experience that’s blown me away, or that I’ve really found valuable. So I can only conclude it’s more valuable to the industry than the end consumer.  

Just as Google Cardboard gives VR a wider reach, 360 video opens people up to a new form of content consumption. One has to hope this gateway to new content experiences can only be a positive thing that will pave the way for greater VR/AR adoption. 

Regardless of the content you’re creating, one fundamental question always applies: "What’s the value of doing this?" Understanding the value you intend to provide, by making the choice to create something in VR or 360, must shape the content. If you haven’t provided any sort of value to the user for taking the time to view your content, you’re doing it wrong.

Christine Cattano is executive producer of Framestore's VR Studio.

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